|The next hour will reveal the new Noble to be one of the most driveable and exploitable supercars ever|
At least it’s not raining,’ I say to photographer Stuart Collins as we stand beside the Noble M600 on one of the Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground’s runway aprons. Right on cue, the first fat drops of a shower fall from a mostly blue sky and begin glossing the prototype’s matt black bodywork. This idling mule has at least 650 twin-turbocharged horsepower, no traction control, and someone else has had the best of the tyres. We look at each other across the roof with raised eyebrows, unaware that the next hour or so will reveal the new Noble to be one of the most driveable and exploitable supercars ever built.
We’re using the short circuit with its smoothly surfaced asphalt ‘cut-through’. The rest is mostly gradually deteriorating ribbed concrete that offers unpredictable levels of grip. Collins and I head out to grab a bit of on-board video footage and get a feel for where the car will strut its stuff for his camera. The answer, once the rain has wetted the whole place, is just about everywhere, and certainly any of the corners…
I glimpsed the enormous power of the Yamaha-sourced 4.4-litre, twin-turbo V8 in the baby blue car, production prototype number three, on the way here, and even in this flat landscape, where the lack of reference points lessens its impact, the urge of the M600 feels mighty. The boost builds early and doesn’t fade until the V8 nears the 7000rpm red line, yet the straight-line traction found by the surprisingly vast 335/30 ZR20 Michelins is remarkable. Such huge mechanical grip, turbo power and a mid-engined, 40/60 front/rear weight distribution don’t sound like tick-boxes for pick-your-angle oversteer but fear not, the M600 will make you look like a hero and put a stupid grin on your face.
An exploratory lunge into a second-gear turn on wet, coarse concrete produces mild understeer. If the chassis is well set up, the rears will be close to their limit of grip too. They are. I give the throttle a stab and it’s like pushing open a door on another world, one that few supercars are able to show you. The transition from understeer to oversteer is progressive and predictable, the throttle is precise and the steering is fast and well weighted – all this is obvious as I grapple with a slightly grabby slide and recovery that’s all down to me. Three or four laps later I’m dialled in, a bit more relaxed with it, and Collins is standing trackside at the cut-through chicane, snapping away as the Noble swings in on power oversteer, throttles off momentarily and swings the other way past the inside kerb on the power again.
Noble MD Peter Boutwood had warned me that I probably wouldn’t like the feel of the brake pedal initially. It has very little servo action at the top of its travel and so feels a bit heavy and unresponsive. It was a bit odd at first, but now it feels spot on, and like the drive the rear tyres find, the amount of stopping power on offer before a front wheel finally locks, even on this poor, wet surface, is remarkable.
Although the M600 is mid-engined there seems to be very little inertia, so it’s the precise, measurable throttle that determines the angle of the slide and how long it is sustained. I can’t think of another supercar that is this friendly, that slips over the limit of grip and back again so effortlessly. The Ferrari F40 is similarly playful but has getting on for 200bhp less, while the Zonda R has the same power but doesn’t feel as exploitable. At Bruntingthorpe there’s a big right-hand sweeper, slightly uphill, fourth gear. The nose of the M600 unsticks and glides a little across the surface on entry, you squeeze the throttle a bit harder, catch the slide and hold it, giving it more and more gas to keep the tail hung out as you accelerate up the hill to the end of fourth gear. I don’t think I’d be comfortable doing that in any other mid-engined supercar.
Impressive, but as far as road driving is concerned, it’s something of a technical achievement. Yet this remarkable on-limit composure and responsiveness doesn’t come at the expense of on-road ability. The Noble isn’t a leather-trimmed race car with a rock-hard ride and underdeveloped road manners. Quite the opposite, in fact, which is why I was so astonished by it on the way here.
The M600 may have 650bhp and a claimed top speed of 225mph, but it’s not intimidating. Swing open the lightweight door, slip into the Sparco seat, turn the key, shove the gearlever into first and drive off. It’s no harder to drive sweetly, with finesse, than the BMW 1-series that brought me to Noble’s base in Barwell, near Leicester, this morning. Really. That stupendously powerful V8 sounds deep and menacing at idle but is utterly docile, the gearshift of the six-speed Graziano transaxle bolted to the back of it is slick and positive, and the action of its twin-plate clutch is light and progressive. Add to that nicely weighted power steering, great forward visibility and a ride that makes the 1-series feel like it’s got concrete tyres, and you’re perfectly softened up for being blown away by the performance, as I was.
After a few miles of low-speed urban ambling, chit-chatting with Boutwood, we came across the first opportunity to give the throttle a good, positive squeeze. So I did. Even before the turbochargers had spooled up there was plenty of shove, and then the engine climbed smoothly onto boost and, well, it all went a bit crazy. It felt like the M600 had been struck by the swing of a huge tennis racket, had sunk into its web and then been punched forward on the follow-through. Moments later we were a few hundred yards up the road with the turbos che-che-chooow-ing on the overrun.
I’d made sure we were pointing straight and heading up a slight gradient because I’d been told that the traction control (protected by the flip-up ordnance switch cover from a Tornado fighter) wasn’t connected on this car either. I’d also done the maths and worked out that with 650bhp and just 1250kg to haul, the Noble has a Bugatti Veyron-rivalling power-to-weight ratio of 528bhp per ton, but still…
Back at Barwell, we meet the boss of Noble Automotive, American Peter Dyson. He took over in August 2006, at the time the company was developing the M15 under the firm’s founder, Lee Noble, who was soon to depart. ‘There is nothing of the M15 in this car,’ says Dyson. That car didn’t know what it wanted to be, he says, and having drafted in Brit Peter Boutwood as MD, they set about creating the supercar that they wanted.
Dyson is an enthusiast who has been able to indulge his passion and owns a whole bunch of supercars, including an F40, an F50 and a Carrera GT. He is also a realist, recognising the shortcomings of those cars (‘Why are so many supercars utterly impractical?’ he asks), and he’s a purist too; he doesn’t want the car to do it for him, whether it’s a paddle-shift gearbox, adaptive dampers or sophisticated stability-control systems.
When he reveals that he’s a big fan of the Ferrari F40, the penny drops. ‘Everyone’s favourite supercar is the F40, right?’ he asks. The M600 takes the Ferrari’s spirit and purity and adds a decent-sized boot and enough power to hold its own in today’s supercar landscape. It has taken three years to develop and is the first Noble, says Dyson, that has been in the wind tunnel and the heat chamber at MIRA, on a four-post chassis-testing rig and to some of the highest and lowest roads in the world (Pikes Peak and Death Valley in the US). ‘We don’t want our customers to develop the car,’ says Boutwood.
AT 8 O’CLOCK the following morning, a Noble-liveried truck unloads the baby blue M600 into a lay-by on one of our favourite roads in North Yorkshire. (Leicestershire didn’t seem quite big enough.) The starter motor whirrs and the V8 catches and assumes a clean, steady idle. Motorkraft in the US developed the engine for Noble. They take crated V8s direct from Yamaha, strip out the internals, install suitably tough conrods and pistons and beefed-up crankshafts, and then rebuild them before adding the Garrett turbos and shipping the lot to the UK. The package is rated up to 750bhp, apparently.
The quality of the leatherwork on the car’s interior is outstanding. The blend of twin-tone hide, glossy carbonfibre and bespoke instruments and switchgear is a success too, and although the pedals are slightly offset to the left, the driving position is good; the steering column adjusts for rake and reach, the seat for reach only. Behind the carbonfibre-topped gearlever there’s a rotary switch machined from billet aluminium, like those for the heating and ventilation, but this one has a red face and three settings. It’s a sort of simple version of Ferrari’s manettino and sets the power level by adjusting boost pressure. ‘Road’ gives 0.6bar boost and 450bhp, ‘Track’ gives 0.8bar and 550bhp, and ‘Race’ the full 1.0bar and 650bhp. Between the instruments is a small panel that shows which setting is selected: ‘Road’ illuminated green, ‘Track’ orange and ‘Race’ red.
Like the traction control, it’s not connected yet, but even with full boost on these awfully bumpy North York Moors roads, the amount of traction the rear end of the M600 finds is truly impressive. Sure, give it the beans in the lowest two gears and when the engine hits a natural peak at around 5000rpm the rear tyres will spin up, but you’ll be expecting it, such is the level of feedback from the chassis.
Up here the scale and reach of the M600’s performance is no less impressive but I find that I’m not hunting for opportunities to get the throttle to the stop. This is a complete car, one in which you enjoy the process of going briskly; changing gear smoothly, hooking onto the perfect line, feeling the feedback from each corner. It’s wonderfully neutral and nimble even when you’re really motoring, and the ride is truly outstanding, supple and quiet. And if you want to feel the rear end load up with power and maybe smear a fraction wide on the exit of a long corner, you can squeeze the throttle just hard enough to make it happen. The transition from grip to slip, the ease with which you can meter out the power and the way it feels so natural up to and over the limit are very special.
When you want to remind yourself that it’s a fully fledged supercar, just find a straight long enough for third and maybe fourth gear. Does it feel Veyron quick? Well, as it gets into its stride it passes through BMW M3 fully wrung out, then Ferrari 599 at 7000rpm, and then it hits that twilight zone where the acceleration is actually quite scary… before ramping up that bit more so that you momentarily wish the traction control was connected. Yep, at that point it feels Veyron quick. Unsuspecting passengers will feel like their hair and some internal organs have been rearranged and may have to have their fingers prised from the sides of the seat.
By the time we’re packing the M600 back in the truck, I realise the looks have grown on me. It’s not drop-dead gorgeous, and some of the detailing such as the engine cover vents let it down, but in a less attention-seeking colour it would cut it. All the panel gaps will be tighter on the carbonfibre-bodied production cars (this one is glassfibre), which will improve its finish.
Other gripes? Most of the interior is bespoke but the column stalks aren’t and they look cheap; the driver’s door mirror gets in the way looking into right-hand turns, and there’s a large ridge that cuts across the footwells that for some reason really offends me. Not that much, then.
Lee Noble may have left the company that bears his name but the M600 retains the most admirable qualities of Nobles past – great ride quality, superb driveability and generous turbocharged performance, only here it’s of supercar proportions. But is the M600 worth the £200K Noble is asking? For anyone used to thinking of Noble as a maker of £50K M12s and M400s, the jump to high-end supercar territory – leapfrogging the likes of the Ferrari 458, McLaren MP4‑12C, Mercedes-Benz SLS and Lamborghini Gallardo – is hard to get your head around. To a large extent, whether it looks expensive depends how much value you put on the driving experience and how much on owning a supercar with the right name. I reckon a lot of badge snobs will never know what they’re missing.